ZELDA Scott Fitzgerald was the ultimate pin-up for the American Dream of the 1920s — the original ‘wild child’ was an eccentric and over-indulged ‘It girl’.
As wife and muse of the author F Scott Fitzgerald she was catapulted into the jazz era’s celebrity world.
But she was not new to the social whirl. Born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1900, the pretty young girl quickly created a significant role for herself in Southern society. She was a member of all the elite clubs, ensuring her VIP invitations to the best events.
It was after completing finishing school that she first met the writer, but at that point she was cautious, unsure of his ability to keep her in the life she was accustomed to.
When the couple eventually married, America was on the brink of change. It was 1920; women had won the right to vote, creating a sense of a new freedom and power for the fairer sex, and setting the stage for the Roaring Twenties. Jazz music had got a grip on America and Europe was following suit. The loose-swinging flapper dress was revolutionary; it allowed women to be freer in how they dressed and danced. Their bodies were now getting more attention and the new bobbed hairstyle showed off their necklines.
Zelda’s flamboyant personality fitted right in. She and her just-published husband embraced the high life.
They were made for this sexy new playground of endless parties, smart dresses, sharp-cut suits, champagne, casinos and midnight dips in sparkling seas.
Through Fitzgerald’s novels, the ordinary people of America were given a glimpse of their world.
People felt like they knew Zelda and, in fact, they knew more than they realised — her husband would take snippets from her diary and mix them liberally with his prose.
When their daughter Francis was born, Fitzgerald noted that Zelda had exclaimed, “Oh, God, goofo I’m drunk ... Isn’t she smart — she has the hiccups. I hope it’s beautiful and a fool — a beautiful little fool”.
In his tour de force, The Great Gatsby, the character Daisy Buchanan expresses a similar hope for her daughter.
At first Zelda was happy to be the man of the moment’s muse, but she soon found her voice, and wanted it to be heard. Being an unknown character in a novel wasn’t enough, she wanted her own artistic licence.
And behind the glamorous exterior, this perfect life was unravelling for the couple. Zelda continued to crave her own moment in the spotlight. She no longer wanted to be “a back-seat driver”, as she described in her only novel — the autobiographical Save me the Waltz.
She wrote this while under psychiatric care in a hospital, after developing schizophrenia. It is believed her literary achievement, while in a mental institution, enraged her husband who took five years to write his own autobiographical masterpiece, Tender is the Night.
Zelda was also determined to become a dancer and pushed herself to extremes during her twenties to fulfil this unachievable dream. As they partied harder, the more alcohol began to take its hold on both of them, creating the perfect fuel for their increasingly dramatic life.
And in 1924, Zelda’s need for drama climaxed in a love affair that led to the destruction of her marriage.
While Fitzgerald was immersed in writing The Great Gatsby, the couple were living in the French Riviera. Zelda became so infatuated with a dashing pilot, that after just six weeks, she asked her husband for a divorce.
Fitzgerald responded by locking her in the house until she retracted her request. According to Zelda’s biographer Nancy Milford, the pilot denied the affair. “They both had a need of drama, they made it up and perhaps they were the victims of their own unsettled and a little unhealthy imagination,” the pilot is reported as saying. The incident left an indelible mark on the couple.
Fitzgerald later wrote: “I knew something had happened that could never be repaired.”
It was the beginning of the end of the fairytale. Zelda’s first breakdown was in Paris in 1930, when she was admitted to a sanatorium. After 1934, the couple never lived together again.
However, Fitzgerald continued to support her from afar, never letting her know that he was living with another woman.
In 1938, the couple had another brief encounter and travelled to Cuba together on holiday. Predictably, it ended in disaster. That trip would be the last time they would see each other.
On Dec 21, 1940, Fitzgerald died. For the remaining years of her life Zelda signed herself in and out of mental hospitals.
Doctors described her as a high achiever and a perfectionist, but she could never reach the ideals she created for herself.
On Mar 10, 1948, Zelda was locked into her hospital room in North Carolina as she awaited electroshock therapy. A fire broke out, killing nine women, including Zelda.
There’s no doubt that Zelda felt Fitzgerald was the love of her life. In one of her last letters to her husband, after a doomed encounter, she had written: “It is a shame that we should have met in harshness and coldness where there was once so much tenderness and so many dreams … I want you to be happy … I love you anyway — even if there isn’t any me or any love or even any life — I love you.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved